Last year, we were pro-Mike Trout. The AL MVP debate pitted the Triple Crown against overall performance, and we came down on the side of evaluating players by things other than batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. Unfortunately, being pro-Mike Trout meant that we were perceived to be inherently anti-Miguel Cabrera. It’s not that we had anything against Cabrera, but he became the personification of The Other Side. In order to help explain why Trout was better, we had to point out where Cabrera was deficient relative to the guy we supported. It’s the nature of comparisons, but it’s not always fair to the guys being compared, especially when picking between multiple great players while trying to decide which one happened to be the greatest.
This post is not a comparison. This post is just about Miguel Cabrera, and appreciating how good he actually is, because as a follow-up to his Triple Crown season, Cabrera’s 2013 season is shaping up to be his best season yet, and one of the best offensive seasons in baseball history.
As I write this, Miguel Cabrera is 1-2 with a double in the game currently commencing against the Angels. That double raised his wRC+ on the season to 202. You don’t need me to tell you that a 202 wRC+ is an amazing performance. What I will tell you, though, is that sustaining it over the first three months of the season is exceedingly rare.
Here’s the entire list of players who have managed to post a wRC+ over 200 since 2002:
Derrek Lee came close in 2005, but fell just short. Albert Pujols never managed a 200 wRC+ in the first three months of the season. Joey Votto got to 187 last year, but that’s as good as he has been able to do. Over a half season’s worth of plate appearances, Cabrera’s offensive dominance is putting himself into rarely charted territory. He’s even dwarfing his own previous accomplishments, even while the run environment continues to stagnate and the game tilts towards pitching and defense.
Because Chris Davis has gone off, Cabrera might not win the Triple Crown again, but it’s almost impossible to argue that he was better last year than he’s been so far this year. Last year, he hit .330; this year, he’s hitting .370. Last year, he got on base at a .393 clip; this year, it’s .460. Last year, he slugged .606; this year, .657.
Cabrera’s on pace to blow past nearly every single mark he put up last year, with the exception of double plays, which he’s hit into fewer of. Pretty much the only measure which has gotten worse is his UZR, which rates him as one of the very worst defensive third baseman in baseball after thinking he was just merely bad last year. But here’s the thing; even with league worst defense at third base, Cabrera is still on pace for a +10 WAR season. If you extrapolate his current rates to 162 games, it’s actually a +10.8 WAR season.
If Cabrera were to sustain this pace and finish with +10.8 WAR, it would tie him with Babe Ruth (1931), Rogers Hornsby (1925), and Honus Wagner (1905) for the 27th best total in baseball history. And of the 27 seasons ahead of him, only Barry Bonds (2001) was able to do so while getting heavily penalized by the defensive component. It is just very hard for a player whose value comes almost solely from his offense to put up a +10 WAR season, but Cabrera’s on a near +11 WAR pace while doing it almost entirely with his bat.
Now, he probably won’t keep this up. Bautista’s 2011 wRC+ fell from 211 in the first half to 143 in the second half. If you take the top 10 first half hitters by wRC+ from 2002-2012, you’ll find that their second half wRC+ was 181, 19 points lower than the 200 they put up as a group in the first half. In any group which you’ve selected a player for being extraordinary, the odds are pretty good that the player is in line to play worse in the future.
But here’s how ridiculous Cabrera is: his rest-of-season ZIPS/Steamer projections expect him to regress back to a .420 wOBA (.419 by Steamer, but close enough), which is higher than his 2012 wOBA. In other words, a regressed Cabrera projection expects him to hit about as well as he did last year when he won the Triple Crown. Both ZIPS and Steamer think the second best hitter in baseball is Joey Votto, and neither system (.408 for ZIPS, .401 for Steamer) puts him all that close to Cabrera.
Offensively, the man is in a league of his own. He’s following an all-time great season by traditional metrics with an all-time great season by advanced metrics. Last year, the argument involving Cabrera was over what type of numbers we should value. This year, it doesn’t matter. Pick any number you want, Cabrera’s probably leading the league in it.
Miguel Cabrera is an amazing hitter, and he’s so amazing at hitting that it hardly matters that he’s not so great at things not involving hitting. Those things do matter, of course, but Cabrera’s offense overwhelms his deficiencies. A few weeks ago, I wrote that a version of Mike Trout that doesn’t strike out is “basically the perfect baseball player”. Well, Miguel Cabrera is basically the perfect hitter. There’s nothing even to nitpick. He’s incredible.
I’m still pro-Mike Trout, but I’m also pro-Miguel Cabrera. They’re both amazing.